While high profile incidents such as prisoner releases seem to have no trouble making the news, it strikes me that there are many stories of our prison system which are largely hidden from public view. This side of the prison system is quite shocking in its own right.
Last year, 88% of sentences were for non-violent offences and 62% of sentences are for less than 6 months. This is the hidden story of our prison system.
The Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service has stated that sentences of less than 6 months actually make communities less safe. These offenders, who are not considered by the courts to be a risk to the public, could be dealt with much more effectively in the community. Legislation is being prepared in Scotland to make it more difficult to impose such short sentences. A short sentence like this can do nothing to address offending and only costs us a huge amount of money. Requiring offenders to ‘pay back’ to the community in some way would be much more effective.
Recent research by Prof Ian O’Donnell and others at UCD has found that those from disadvantaged areas are 25 times more likely to end up in prison. The cycle of disadvantage, exclusion and, in many cases, addiction leads so many into prison. The proportion of prisoners with mental illness, and the number of homeless people in our system is shocking. Prison is not the place for such people. We also do so little on release to assist with reintegration. It is little wonder the cycle begins again. These are major failings and the compromise the protection of the public.
Last year there was an increase of 88% in those sent to prison because they could not pay a fine. That is a shocking waste of taxpayer’s money.
It costs €90,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail. I don’t think we are getting value for money in the vast majority of cases. The €400m budget for the Prison Service could be redeployed to prevent offending at a much earlier stage e.g. by investing in disadvantaged communities from which most offenders are drawn, and by intervention with those we see in the Children’s Court every day. These are the people who will end up in our overcrowded, dangerous and outdated prison system.
How can there be a proper system of rehabilitation when people are sleeping on mattresses, 4 men to a cell, and slopping out? How can we expect change when so little is done with offenders serving their sentences? The Inspector of Prisons believes that current conditions in Mountjoy are so bad that they pose a danger to life. Yet little is heard about this in the media. There is an obligation on all media outlets to bring these matters to light, otherwise, as we have seen only recently with regard to child abuse, what goes on behind closed doors is ignored for decades.
We need to re-think our prison system and re-imagine how we use prison. In every country those who commit murder and rape are locked up. Dangerous people should not be at liberty. However, our prisons are full of people for whom imprisonment is futile. It is both ineffective and expensive. Surely we can come up with a better way to deal with the addict, the road traffic offender, the person who defaults on a fine? When we remove the huge number of people in on short sentences then perhaps we could direct our resources to ensuring that prison deals with the most dangerous in order to protect the public.
Irish prison policy is now at a crossroads. The number of prisoners has quadrupled in 30 years, our prisons are bursting at the seams and yet people don’t feel safer. Surely we are on the wrong path. Our media has an important role to play in ensuring a better future.